For a team that’s consistently had a postseason presence in recent years, the Tigers will unveil a dramatically different infield this upcoming season. The organization authored perhaps the biggest trade of the offseason, sending slugger Prince Fielder to Texas for second baseman Ian Kinsler. Futhermore, Miguel Cabrera should transition back to first base, while the door opens for top prospect Nick Castellanos to man the hot corner.
Significant changes, but the unwavering piece of the Tigers’ infield, at least in terms of fantasy production, will be Miguel Cabrera. He’s the best hitter on the planet and is probably the consensus number-two fantasy option behind Mike Trout. He may have captured the Triple Crown in 2012, but his 2013 season was unquestionably better. The 30-year-old superstar hit .348/.442/.636 with 44 home runs, and his 192 wRC+ was the highest of his career by a healthy margin.
There’s not much to offer in terms of fantasy analysis on Miguel Cabrera. He’s amazing. He will provide elite production in all major categories, aside from stolen bases. The other thing to love about Miggy is that he’s accumulated at least 600 plate appearances in 10-consecutive seasons. He’s as close to a sure thing as one can get in fantasy baseball.
Around the remainder of the infield, though, we have some things to discuss. And in general, I’m not excited about what the Tigers’ infield offers for fantasy owners in terms of production and value.
Ian Kinsler has proven a divisive individual this offseason. He’s traditionally been considered a near-elite second baseman, but he disappointed last year and was the seventh-ranked player behind guys like Matt Carpenter and Daniel Murphy. One may also recall that I strongly advocated passing on Kinsler in favor of Jason Kipnis last season, which played out beautifully, especially in the first half.
My distaste for Kinsler doesn’t stem solely from the transition from Texas to Detroit, as too much has been made of the park differential. Rangers Ballpark at Arlington had a 106 park factor for right-handers, while Comerica Stadium had a 100 park factor. Kinsler may be moving to a more-difficult hitting environment, but people are condemning his power as if he’s moving to PNC Park or Busch Stadium. I mean, some even calculated the park factors to be identical between the two parks last season.
That’s not to suggest I’m not concerned about his power production. I am. There were eleven second basemen with at least 13 homers last season, and three of those offered double-digit stolen bases. He’s not offering anything special or unique any longer.
What’s more, Kinsler ranked 257th in baseball last season in batted-ball distance, just behind Gregor Blanco, Jed Lowrie and Mike Aviles. The season before, he ranked 251st. His ISO numbers have consistently falled from his monster 2011 campaign, and it seems the data lurking beneath isn’t positive. He’s also turning 32 years old, which makes one wonder if he’ll jump back to the 20-steal plateau — especially moving to a team that ranked dead-last in the MLB last year with 35 stolen bases.
I’m not willing to pay for that many question marks.
At shortstop, the Jose Iglesias situation isn’t difficult to dissect. He benefited from a .356 BABIP last year and hit .303/.349/.386, which has people excited, but this is a guy who hit .244/.296/.292 in 222 games in Triple-A Pawtucket. His profile hasn’t changed. He’s still a hacktastic shortstop with absolutely no power. His batted-ball distance was barely above Pete Kozma and Marco Scutaro last season, and we know that .083 ISO isn’t a mirage.
Iglesias is essentially Alcides Escobar without the steals, and heaven have mercy on you if you’re relying upon that type of profile for your starting shortstop on draft day. Best-case scenario is something like Marco Scutaro — no power, high average, no stolen bases — who was the 23rd-ranked shortstop last year. And I’m not even close to convinced the batting average will remain above .275 this upcoming season.
Moving to the hot corner, much of the hype surrounding the Tigers’ infield has stemmed from top prospect Nick Castellanos and the fact that he’s the presumed everyday starter at third base. Fantasy owners love prospects, especially in recent seasons. Every rookie with helium seemingly possesses the potential to light the league afire like Yasiel Puig or Jose Fernandez. Of course, that shouldn’t be expected of every prospect, especially one like Castellanos, who only hit .276/.343/.450 at Triple-A last season — certainly respectable, but nothing overwhelming.
In fact, his Oliver projection has him hitting .255/.310/.409 with 17 home runs. That’s much like Todd Frazier last year with a little higher average, and Frazier was the 17th-ranked third baseman. That certainly has value, and it does seem Castellanos has some upside. ESPN’s Keith Law wrote:
He’s very strong for a 21-year-old, with a simple, repeatable swing that starts with a deep load and is heavily rotational, leading to that above-average power that will end up plus, probably 25-30 homers per year, even in Comerica Park.
If he costs them five runs a year in the field, which I doubt, he’ll more than make up for it with his bat, hitting .290-.300 with doubles and homers.
The important thing to remember when reading scouting reports such as the one quoted above is that Law is speaking of peak performance, not his expected performance as a 22-year-old getting his first extended taste of big-league action. Sure, it could happen, but it seems highly unlikely he would reach such peak performance so early.
Castellanos is currently being drafted at #284 overall, so it’s not as if he’ll be expensive on draft day. He’s being drafted around hitters like Omar Infante, Mike Moustakas, Andre Either and Kolten Wong. For more context, he’s being drafted just behind Oscar Taveras (#275). That feels like the right place for Castellanos; thus, if you’re a fan of the young slugger, I see no issue popping him in the late-20s.
Another main asset the Tigers possess in the infield is Victor Martinez, who will no longer be eligible at the catcher position for most owners. He was a second-half superstar last season, hitting .361/.413/.500 in the second half with more walks than strikeouts. Of course, the former All Star benefited from a .371 BABIP, which skews the stats a bit. More importantly, as a first baseman and utility option for fantasy owners, his power numbers are no longer special. There were 30 first basemen who accumulated at least 14 home runs last season, which was Martinez’s season total. For him to provide value at first base, he must hit for a high average. Our own Eno Sarris says one can reasonably expect V-Mart to hit for a high average, but personally, that’s not something I’m buying on draft day unless it comes cheap. And considering he’s going above guys like Brett Lawrie and Aramis Ramirez, I’m almost certainly not buying.
Because, really, that’s essentially James Loney with a few more runs batted in and a few more runs scored. If Loney hits for a high average and hits 12-to-15 homers, like he did in 2013, he could provide the same value V-Mart did this season at the first base position. And Loney is currently being drafted at #326, while Martinez is at #153.
Finally, we move behind the dish to assess Alex Avila and his fantasy outlook this year. He launched double-digit home runs last year, but overall, his attractiveness from his breakout season in 2011 is severely dissipating. His batting average has decreased significantly. It’s corresponded with a heightened swinging-strike rate that reached 11.4% last year. The 27-year-old catcher can still draw walks and possesses a little more value in OBP leagues, but a 29.6% strikeout rate last year indicates significant holes in the swing and that his .227 batting average isn’t likely to rocket upward too significantly — especially considering his .227 average came with a .305 BABIP.
With how deep catching is this season, there’s no reason to draft Alex Avila in one-catcher leagues. Obviously, things change significantly in two-catcher leagues, but I’d rather pass on Avila and grab someone like Josmil Pinto or Yasmani Grandal in the later rounds, assuming they’ll grab more playing time as the season progresses.
Overall, the Tigers infield doesn’t offer much in terms of value on draft day, outside the sensational Miguel Cabrera. Guys like Ian Kinsler, Victor Martinez and perhaps Nick Castellanos can positively affect your fantasy team, but will likely cost more than is prudent to spend. And again, Jose Iglesias isn’t a viable fantasy option, no matter how much you like his .303 batting average last year.
So, I guess, long live Miguel Cabrera. Hopefully, for fantasy owners, he doesn’t “regress” to his 2011 levels, when he hit .344 with only 30 home runs. And he only knocked in 105 runs that season. For shame.
J.P. Breen is a graduate student at the University of Chicago. For analysis on the Brewers and fantasy baseball, you can follow him on Twitter (@JP_Breen).